Science Fun with the Coke & Mentos Guys

Tuesdays on the Chronicle Books blog are reserved for the Entertainment group, and today we have a post that is perfectly suited for that theme. Stephen Voltz is half of the EepyBird duo, better known as The Coke and Mentos Guys who made viral video of their extraordinary Coke and Mentos fountains, and appeared in videos such as Weezer’s “Pork and Beans.” They are also authors of our new book, How to Build a Hovercraft: Air Cannons, Magnetic Motors, and 25 Other Amazing DIY Science Projects. Here Stephen answers some questions about how they got here.

Q: So Fritz is a juggler and you were a trial lawyer, how did you two ever start working together?

A: Both of us have a background is in variety performing. And Fritz isn’t just a juggler. He’s a really, really good juggler. Over the years he’s won five gold medals from the International Jugglers Association.

For my part, after college I went to law school, but in high school and college I used to do magic and juggling on street corners in San Francisco where I grew up. Fritz and I met at an intensive workshop studying clowning back in 2000 where I was working on a solo clown show for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.

Q: You guys are known for making viral videos, how did you come to write a science book?

A: My brother John was the initial impetus. He was the one who first lit a fire under Fritz and me to write this. John knew that in the work Fritz and I were doing to make viral videos we were collecting a lot of great information on cool stunts and science demonstrations.

Ever since we were kids John and I have collected of books of weird and cool stunts. Some are science books, some are magic books, some are what used to be called “party stunt” books. Almost all of them fall into two groups: either they have good stunts with little or no explanation of the science behind them, or they have a good discussion of the science and a collection of lame and boring stunts. John pointed out that this was an opportunity to write the book that we had never found in all our searching: one that includes only really fun, cool experiments AND gives serious attention to the science that makes them work. That’s what we tried to do with this book.

Q: How does science and teaching science fit into your main work, which is creating viral videos?

A: When Fritz and I initially started exploring Coke and Mentos in preparation for what became our first viral video, we were extremely methodical. All we were doing was trying to figure out how to make the best short piece we could with Coke and Mentos, but that meant that we really had to understand as much as we could about how and why it worked.

We dropped every candy on the store shelves into soda and dropped Mentos into just about every different kind of soda we could buy, and we kept careful notes of what gave us the biggest reaction. We’d set off a combination we knew well at the same time as a combination we hadn’t tried and see which one gave us a higher geyser. It was classic control versus experiment methodology. That’s when we first said to each other “Gee, we should get the high school science classes out here doing this. What a great way this would be to teach the scientific method.”

We gradually came to realize that what we were doing out in a hay field in Buckfield, Maine, and later in our EepyLab up the road, to make viral videos involved a lot of experimenting with new materials and then building new things with them and that would be a great way to learn science, math and engineering.

Q: How did you decide which experiments to include?

A: For many years there was a great little variety theater in Buckfield, Maine, the town where we’re based. It was started, built, run by – and often starred – our good friend Mike Miclon, one of the funniest performers I’ve ever met. The first weekend of every month the theater put on “The Early Evening Show” a live show that was a spoof of a late night talk show. There was a great band, some ensemble comedy, usually a guest musical artist and a guest variety performer and some kind of finale. You never knew who the guests would be or what acts you’d see, but it was always such a great show that it pretty much sold out for the entire fourteen years the theater was open. Fritz was a regular part of the ensemble that put that show together and I was an occasional guest.

The Early Evening Show was the first place we ever did Coke and Mentos. Fritz and I did a sketch that finished with a ten bottle Coke and Mentos fountain. That was such a big hit that we decided to do a bigger piece to put online and that’s what became The Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments video that went crazy viral a few years ago.

As Fritz and I were evaluating the various candidates for inclusion in the book our test was this: could this be the basis for a piece for the Early Evening Show? If so, it made the cut, if not, it wasn’t good enough for the book.

Q: So what’s next for you guys?

A: We’re working on projects where we’re taking some of the experiments in the book way past anything we’ve ever seen before and making viral videos from them. Should be some really fun stuff!

April Whitney

Purchase How to Build a Hovercraft: Air Cannons, Magnetic Motors, and 25 Other Amazing DIY Science Projects.

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